A nutrition boost during COVID-19

August 21, 2020
Woman holds a bag of beans
Nichole Sobecki

As lockdown restrictions limit the movement of people in Uganda, women and children who are already vulnerable to malnutrition now face even greater difficulties accessing nutritious food. The Cultivate Africa’s Future (CultiAF) NutriFish project is responding to this challenge by pivoting its research activities from improving post-harvest and fish processing technologies to fast-tracking development of a maize meal product enriched with silverfish.

“As we speak, there is a woman right now in a Ugandan community with a sick child with micronutrient deficiencies. She hasn’t been able to get to the health centre for five weeks due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Fortunately, NutriFish is working on alleviating that situation,” explains Dorothy Nakimbugwe, one of the principal investigators for the NutriFish project, which aims to reduce micronutrient deficiencies by providing greater access to animal protein. One serving (200 g) of the fish-enriched maize flour provides 30–50% of the daily requirement of energy, iron, protein, vitamin A, and zinc.

Thus far, the project has donated 2.5 tons of the enriched maize meal to the Mwanamugimu Nutrition Rehabilitation Unit at Mulago hospital, based in Kampala. Whilst the target for this particular initiative is to reach 100 breastfeeding mothers over a period of three months to improve their ability to produce adequate breast milk to feed their babies, an estimated 560,000 consumers are expected to access these affordable and nutritious fish-based products by the end of the project.

NutriFish has also responded to government-funded COVID-19 calls for proposals from Makerere University. The project successfully secured funding to expand the maize meal initiative for breastfeeding mothers (from one to five hospitals) and to develop new fishing technology to help fishermen and women maintain social distancing on their boats. The results will be used to inform policy on how to develop a preventative approach to combat malnutrition in the country rather than relying on a therapeutic response, and on how to maintain fish supplies to address the recommended nutritional needs for COVID-19 patients.

The benefit of nutrient-rich beans

The CultiAF precooked beans project is also innovating to address malnutrition in East Africa. The first phase of the project, which focused on increasing consumption of the traditional protein and nutrient-rich grain in Kenya and Uganda, developed a precooked bean product that reduces cooking time from two hours to just 15 minutes. Other innovative products developed by the team include a bean-based snack bar and bean flour. The second phase of the project, which aims to increase food and nutrition security as well as smallholder incomes by commercializing bean grains fortified with iron and zinc, is focusing on scaling up the supply and uptake of the precooked products.

However, bean producers are now struggling to access bean seed under COVID-19 restrictions, and disruptions in grain supply have led to a 70% reduction in bean processing — from 1 ton down to just 0.3 ton per month. To address this, the project is providing bean seed varieties to farmers on credit via local suppliers so they can continue to access the inputs they need for production. “The issues of seed access and affordability at a time of competing needs and priorities have really been catered for,” says Grace Nanyonjo, socio-economist and gender specialist for the project.

COVID-19 has also negatively affected consumer access to the final products, especially in schools and private hospitals, which have largely closed. Border control and transport difficulties have further impacted product access in Uganda. The project is therefore looking into alternative distribution channels to cope with such impacts, including direct orders from the bean processors, who are also using this time to negotiate product supply with new outlets to avoid further negative impacts for food and nutrition security. “The project is also engaging new private sector partners to increase access and consumption of the nutritious precooked bean products,” concludes Nanyonjo.

The Cultivate Africa’s Future Fund (CultiAF) is a ten-year, CA$35 million partnership between IDRC and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). The partnership leverages the strengths and resources of each organization to improve food and nutrition security, resilience, and gender equality across eastern and southern Africa. CultiAF funds applied research to develop and scale up sustainable, climate resilient, and gender responsive innovations for smallholder agricultural producers.

Learn more about CultiAF